We'll talk at length about the original StarCraft game, but suffice to say that after its enormous success, and after twelve full years without an additional release, anticipation for StarCraft II was enormous. I, personally, can't recall any franchise as popular as StarCraft that went through that much time without a sequel. Upon its reception, it met with widespread critical acclaim. Blizzard's years of real-time strategy game development were channeled into a perfect balance between the various factions, and unlike many games that focus heavily on the multiplayer mode, the single player campaign of the game drew heavy praise as well. The multiplayer service itself, though, still drew praise on its own, and has emerged as the first real challenger to the original games' role as the most successful e-sport around. This success was even further enhanced by StarCraft II's role as the first major real-time strategy game to be released since the end of Westwood Studios' days.
Despite all this success and critical acclaim, though, StarCraft II has not managed to attain the level of cultural penetration of its predecessors. It drew relatively little attention as a Game of the Year candidate, and while fans love it, it remains overlooked in many circles. Reasons for this abound, but in my opinion, the fault for this lies in the release structure: StarCraft II is broken into three major releases, and thus far only one has come out. This fragmented release schedule of what feels like three parts of the same game leads to the impression that the game is not yet finished, yet the long release schedule between stories diminishes the anticipation they would otherwise draw.
Before Blizzard changed its name from Silicon & Synapse, it had two modest hits that put the company on strong standing moving forward. Released in 1993, the second of these two hits was the battle racing game Rock n' Roll Racing. Available for the SNES and Sega Genesis (and later ported to the Game Boy Advance ten years later), the game focused on racing four opponents around a track with a heavy emphasis on attacking one's competitors. In many ways, the game's structure is similar to Nintendo's Super Mario Kart, but the isometric viewpoint in the game provides a unique flavor compared to its contemporary.
The game is also an interesting study in the relationship between developers and publishers. Originally developed by Silicon & Synapse as a sequel to their very first game, RPM Racing, it was the publisher Interplay that changed its name and soundtrack. The name of the game actually comes almost entirely from the soundtrack; the background music of the game are instrumental versions of several popular rock n' roll songs, and that element is more responsible for the game's name than any element of the actual gameplay. That's not to suggest that the music and name don't match the game, but the fact that the publisher exhibited such significant control over the final product's soundtrack, name, and marketing remains interesting. A sequel was developed completely independently from Blizzard, but never achieved any success.
The other, and likely better-known, game developed by Blizzard in its Silicon & Synapse days was The Lost Vikings. Released in 1992, The Lost Vikings was Blizzard's first major hit. "Hit", of course, is a relative term, but the game was the first one (following from Rock n' Roll Racing) to give the company a firm financial footing to expand towards. In terms of gameplay, The Lost Vikings had a very unique style; the player controls all three Vikings, but only one at a time, and the ones not being controlled must still be protected while controlling another Viking. In a strange sort of way, the game was reminiscent of the style of Lemmings, where different skills had to be leveraged to the benefit of the group as a whole. Of course, given that some writers reference Lemmings as an early, early predecessor of the real-time strategy genre, I could just be grasping for straws here to connect Blizzard's early history to its RTS-centric teenage years.
The Lost Vikings did spawn a sequel, The Lost Vikings II, released in 1997 for the SNES and later ported to the Saturn, PlayStation, and PC. Its release date put it near the end of the SNES's console lifespan, though, and as a result it never achieved a significant following like the original. It is, however, notable for being the last Blizzard release outside the company's three major franchises, Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo.
Blizzard's first major hit went on to spawn its most successful franchise and many of its most successful games. Perhaps that legacy is ironic, then, given that the original Warcraft game was not terribly remarkable. Now, don't get me wrong, the game was very good; I played it for hours upon hours back then, always having to use cheat codes to get through it (hey, I was 7 years old). When compared to the Command & Conquer series, though, which debuted only a few months later, the game was far behind. It is for that reason that even though technically, Blizzard entered the real-time strategy genre between Westwood Studios' Dune II and Command & Conquer games, Westwood still typically draws credit for incubating the genre in its early years. Blizzard did not take the reins with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and in fact would not take the reins for a few years after.
All that said, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was still a quality release, as well as the company's first major financial success. One of its most notable features was the ability to compete with other individuals over local networks or internet connections; while other games had employed this in the past, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was among the first to convince its audience that this type of gameplay was more engaging and challenging than typical gameplay against AI. Needless to say, though, the game's most notable achievement was spawning on of the industry's all-time greatest franchises.
Although Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was its first foray into the real-time strategy genre, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness was the game that truly helped stake Blizzard's claim as a legitimate rival to Westwood Studios' popular Command & Conquer series. Released only a few months after its rival, Warcraft II was worlds ahead of its own predecessor in every way, from the graphics to the complexity of the build tree to the flexibility of combat. The game's most notable contribution to the industry, though, was in raising the profile of Blizzard and allowing it to compete as one of the PC industry's greatest heavyweights, alongside the companies we've already discussed (id, Origin, and Westwood most notably). In fact, it was Warcraft II that fueled a veritable arms race between different real-time strategy developers. It was also one of the first games in the genre to garner significant attention as a Game of the Year candidate, and essentially swept the awards for PC-based games in its release year.
Warcraft II was also significant in its role in helping splinter the real-time strategy genre. Although it was regarded as a direct competitor with the Command & Conquer franchise, it also in many ways differentiated itself in qualitative ways. At the surface level, Warcraft II focused on fantasy elements while Command & Conquer focused on realistic alternate history, but that discrepancy fueled the ongoing differentiation of the genre. It is hard to imagine, for example, the Command & Conquer series inspiring a game like Warcraft II's eventual MMORPG successor.
Although Warcraft II followed relatively quickly after the original Warcraft, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos saw a much longer development time. Released in 2002, it came seven years after the previous Warcraft release, and followed the Warcraft II Battle.net Edition. The Warcraft II Battle.net Edition itself deserves special mention in this list because it was Battle.net that helped solidify Blizzard's role as the dominant developer of real-time strategy games in the industry; realistically, though, it's StarCraft that deserves most of the credit for that development, given that Battle.net was created primarily as a multiplayer service for StarCraft.
Benefiting from the new open multiplayer service, though, Warcraft III quickly became the most acclaimed game in the series. Financially, critically, and in terms of awards, the game was the most successful game in the franchise, winning several Game of the Year awards. It leveraged many of the strengths and lessons of StarCraft, itself arguably the company's most revolutionary game within the real-time strategy genre, and ported them to the famous and beloved Warcraft universe in a nearly perfect way. The influence of StarCraft is very apparent in the game's implementation, as many true real-time strategy buffs noted that at its core, there was little to differentiate Warcraft III from its own genre predecessors. The instantiation of those concepts in the beloved franchise, though, coupled with the flawless expansion of the popular Warcraft universe, led to Warcraft III quickly becoming the most acclaimed game in the franchise.
One of the underappreciated elements that Blizzard pioneered during its age of dominance was the notion of the expansion pack. Expansion packs are, as you likely know, additional content addendums that had to be installed on top of the original game. They added new units, new missions, new content, or new structures to the existing game. Realistically, expansion packs were the 1990s predecessor to modern-day downloadable content; in fact, most downloadable content is itself just an expansion pack that can be delivered digitally rather than requiring an additional disc-based installation. But, I digress.
Blizzard used expansion packs several times in its releases, beginning with Warcraft II's first expansion pack, Beyond the Dark Portal. The original Diablo received a Hellfire expansion pack while StarCraft also got an expansion pack in the form of Brood War, but it was the expansion pack to the acclaimed Diablo II that is the company's most notable example of the paradigm. This isn't meant to denigrate Diablo II itself, a great game that itself deserves the #4 spot on this list on its own; the Lord of Destruction expansion pack, however, did a flawless job of enhancing and expanding the game's existing appeal. The most notable element of the Lord of Destruction expansion pack was the enhancement of the multiplayer angle, as well as the inclusion of new classes in the gameplay structure. It was clear that the company had learned from StarCraft's Brood War especially, and this expansion provided enough content to be considered one of Blizzard's greatest developments in its own right.
#3: Diablo (PC)
Undoubtedly one of Blizzard's most acclaimed games, however, was the original Diablo. While Diablo II was very popular, the original, created in a vacuum by a company with little to no experience in the genre, remains to this day a masterpiece. Released in 1996 after the company had found significant success with the initial releases in its Warcraft series, Diablo represented an attempt by the company to branch out into another genre. The result is a game in a genre that is actually somewhat difficult define, given that no other company had prior or sense developed a game quite like it; described by some as an action RPG, others as a hack-and-slash game, and still others as a dungeon crawler, Diablo was an entity all unto its own, one that likely could have spawned its own copycat genre had any other developer figured out how to mimic its appeal.
Perhaps drawing inspiration from the popular Doom franchise for its setting, Diablo was set against the backdrop of a battle between heaven and hell. Upon release, it received nearly universal acclaim, as well as several Game of the Year awards. Its complexity, flexibility, and atmosphere all drew special acclaim. One could easily make the argument that it was Diablo that solidified Blizzard's role as a strong developer for PC rather than just a strong developer of real-time strategy games. The game remains so popular, and its genre so impervious to the iterative developments that cause other games to age so poorly, that to this day it remains a somewhat popular release.
#2: StarCraft (PC)
Given any pantheon of video gaming's greatest hits every, the top two games developed by Blizzard would undoubtedly be among them. First and foremost, we have StarCraft, arguably the culmination of Blizzard's incredible prowess in real-time strategy development. Although Warcraft III was even better in and of itself, StarCraft ranks as the greatest leap forward, both within Blizzard's own releases and for the real-time strategy genre as a whole. Throughout the 1990s, Westwood Studios and Blizzard battled for supremacy in the genre, but it was StarCraft – coupled with Westwood's unfortunate demise a couple years later at the hands of the ruthless EA – that delivered the genre into Blizzard's hands.
StarCraft is one of those games for which you could never say enough about its popularity and acclaim. Suffice to say, however, that in addition to being one of the best-selling games of all time and the highest-rated, most acclaimed games ever, its level of cultural penetration is astounding. StarCraft is essentially still the national sport of South Korea, and even the release of StarCraft II has been unable to make a notable dent in the appeal of the original game for that country. It nearly singlehandedly launched the idea of professional gaming leagues as a mainstream idea, due in large part to the brilliant balance and complexity of the game's structure. Unlike other games that could be "solved", StarCraft never lent itself to any be-all end-all dominant strategy, giving itself an appeal not unlike a modern-day implementation of the most popular game of all time, Chess.
But despite the dominance of Blizzard's real-time strategy games, and despite the extent to which the company is and likely always will be associated with the genre it helped define, the greatest game the company ever developed remains its most popular, best-selling, and most famous release: World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft's numbers essentially speak for itself. Released almost eight years ago, it remains to this day far and away the most popular game in one of gaming's newest dominant genres. With over 10 million subscribers, the online world itself is larger than many small countries. It is the unquestioned king of the MMORPG genre, and every new release in its arena is measured entirely by its capacity to be a "World of Warcraft killer".
Put simply, no game has ever dominated its genre as much as World of Warcraft has dominated MMORPGs. No game has ever achieved a market share over 50%, yet some estimates put World of Warcraft's market share above 75% at its peak. To make that even more impressive, World of Warcraft dominates the market at a time when it is at its peak; other games might dominate a market with niche appeal or upstart popularity, but World of Warcraft has popularized, actualized, and withstood the changes to one of gaming's most popular genres over the span of nearly a decade. No game has ever achieved the dominance over its genre that World of Warcraft has achieved, much less at a time when the genre was wildly, wildly popular. After a decade of waiting for a "World of Warcraft killer", it is thus perhaps fitting that it can only come in the form of Blizzard's latest project, for now code-named only Titan.
Honorable Mentions: The Lost Vikings II, The Death and Return of Superman, Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal, Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, Diablo III, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria.
Despite the seemingly absolute success of Blizzard over the years, even it has fallen on tough times most recently. Its most recent sequel in one of its acclaimed franchises, Diablo III, failed to impress, receiving positive reviews but failing to live up to the company's absurdly high standards. The incredible time between releases also contributed to a heightened anticipation for the game, making it virtually impossible for the release to live up to the absurd expectations. StarCraft II, while popular, suffered a similar fate: the time since the original release coupled with the game's somewhat strange release structure failed to deliver the type of acclaim and hype to which the company is accustomed. Also impacting the company's development is its 2008 merger with Activision and Vivendi; while the company remains a standalone entity after the merger unlike other companies (and while Blizzard actually is present in the new company's title), it is difficult to absolutely ascertain the impact that the merger may have had on the quality and schedule of Blizzard's releases. Yet while Blizzard has fallen on tough times, most recently laying off 600 employees after lukewarm sales of its more recent releases, its "alumni" have been very successful: former Blizzard staff members have created the companies responsible for Rift, Hellgate: London, Guild Wars, Firefall, and Daxter.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJGames (01/16/2013)
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